Do you have a serious athlete in your family? If you do, chances are you’ll have heard them talking about their eating plan. This is because, unlike most of us who only need between two and three meals a day to get by, athletes require a bit more. This article looks at how the human body converts food into energy as well as how an athlete’s diet must be carefully crafted and managed in order for them to remain in peak condition:
Food and Physical Exertion
The human body is like a car: the further you want to push it, the more fuel you have to supply. For most of us working desk jobs or other careers requiring little to no physical exertion – other than getting up and walking around so often – the standard diet serves us just fine. We don’t need to eat loads of food because we aren’t engaging in strenuous activities that require more energy.
Athletes, on the other hand, lead highly active lifestyles. Some athletes have run twenty kilometres and worked every muscle in their bodies before most of us get out of bed. Since they are using up much more energy, they require more food or fuel to ensure their bodies can keep up with their hectic training schedules.
Ever wonder why some people, who are in perfect health, can’t seem to help gaining weight? The answer comes down to simple mathematics. You figure out how many kilojoules you spend on an average day, then figure out how many kilojoules you consume every day. If your kilojoule consumption is higher than your expenditure, you’re eating more food than your body needs and this excess will be stored as fat.
How the Body Transforms Food into Energy
Food is the body’s main source of energy but it can only provide a type of energy that the body can utilise through a process known as cellular respiration. Let’s use an apple as an example. You eat an apple, and the sugars from the apple are broken down into the simple sugar known as glucose. The glucose molecules hold the energy.
Glucose is converted into carbon dioxide and water in the presence of oxygen. Through this process, the energy in the glucose molecules is converted into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is a type of energy the cells of our bodies can consume and use. Our bodies produce between 36 and 38 ATP molecules per glucose molecule consumed.
What About Athletes?
We know why athletes need to eat differently, but just how differently are we talking about? The way an athlete eats can have a massive impact on how they perform in their chosen sport. Some of these impacts include improved recovery, bolstered immunity, and optimum sleeping patterns. Here are four areas where an athlete’s diet will differ from that of non-athletic individuals:
1. More carbohydrates
Glycogen is the form of carbohydrate take when stored in the muscles. This carbohydrate-based energy source is tapped into when undertaking endurance exercises. Triathletes, soccer players, runners and the like require a substantial amount of glycogen to keep their bodies performing so they typically consume two to threetimes more carbohydrates per day than most of us.
2. More protein
Protein serves to repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue. Since athletes are engaging in strenuous activity which often places immense strain on the body’s muscle groups, they eat – on average – two to times as much protein as the rest of us. This helps to repair their muscles faster as well as improve their muscular strength.
3. More hydration
Athletes sweat much more than your average gym-goer. Through this perspiration they lose hydration, salts and carbohydrates. Without replacing these, especially the salts, athletes will suffer from severe muscle cramps and other negative sideeffects. For this reason, athletes need to replenish lost fluids and essential elements by consuming more electrolyte-rich foods.
4. Recovery meals
Other than the regular three meals a day, athletes often include extra meals here and there to aid recovery. For example, an athlete who exercises until late at night – and is planning on hitting the gym again first thing in the morning – requires a recovery meal in-between their planned ones. Athletes, on average, will consume between 5 and 8 meals a day – depending on their exercise plan. These meals are smaller than your average breakfast or lunch, and often include things like biltong, nuts and berries.
So remember the tips above if you are an athlete or a friend of yours competes in competitive sports. Stick to these and your sporting performance will improve dramatically!
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